Rare, elu­sive snow leop­ard’s ‘ter­ri­ble beauty’

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - COVER STORY - By Jill K. Robin­son Jill K. Robin­son is a free­lance writer based in Half Moon Bay. Email: travel@sfchron­i­cle.com. Twit­ter and In­sta­gram: @DangerJR

The ur­gent shout, the one we’ve been wait­ing for, comes from out­side my tent some­where. I’m half asleep, half dressed and cradling a cup of chai to warm half-frozen hands, but the words get my whole at­ten­tion.

“Leop­ard! Leop­ard! Leop­ard!”

I scram­ble: Chai sloshes across my pants as I shove feet into socks, pull a sweater over my head, cram gloves and hat into pock­ets, un­zip my tent with one hand and grab my cam­era and boots with an­other. I sprint in my socks to where Sonam, the tracker who shouted the alert, stands, head down, seem­ingly merged with the tele­scope. Af­ter a quick “jul­lay” (an all-pur­pose Ladakhi word for hello, good­bye and thank you), he steps quickly aside to let me look.

Up to this point on a trekking ex­pe­di­tion into the spec­tac­u­larly jagged Ladakh re­gion of In­dia, high in the Hi­malayas at the north­ern cor­ner of the coun­try, the snow leop­ard has lived up to its rep­u­ta­tion for ex­treme elu­sive­ness.

But among these snow­draped moun­tains south­west of the town of Leh that rise to more than 20,000 feet is where the snow leop­ard lives, al­beit qui­etly and stealthily. It is what brought au­thor Peter Matthiessen to the moun­tain range in Nepal. The al­lure of spy­ing the an­i­mal “whose ter­ri­ble beauty is the very stuff of hu­man long­ing,” Matthiessen said in the book “The Snow Leop­ard,” can make it dif­fi­cult to live with po­ten­tial dis­ap­point­ment.

It’s a thought that’s dif­fi­cult to es­cape, even as a I lean in to look through Sonam’s tele­scope. My ex­pec­ta­tions rise and fall like the land­scape, but there’s a con­stant re­al­iza­tion that, in the end, I might be track­ing a ghost.

With our duf­fel bags and camp­ing sup­plies tied to the backs of sturdy moun­tain ponies, we hike up the trail to our camp­ground in Hemis High Al­ti­tude Na­tional Park. The more than 2,000-square-mile park in the north­ern­most dis­trict of Ladakh has per­haps 60 snow leop­ards, said Khen­drup, a cam­era trap spe­cial­ist who has worked with the lo­cal for­est de­part­ment and the Snow Leop­ard Con­ser­vancy. About nine of those re­side in the Hus­ing Val­ley, the deep canyon at 12,500 feet where our camp is based. Thank­fully, lo­cal track­ers with the Moun­tain Travel Sobek ex­cur­sion — Sonam, Chitta and Morup — know the ter­ri­tory, and the wildlife, well.

Herds of bharal climb the steep cliffs of slate-blue shale on ei­ther side of the canyon as we walk. Also known as blue sheep, they’re one of the snow leop­ard’s main prey, and are some­times hard to spot, so well does their color­ing blend with the stone. A large black yak with in­tim­i­dat­ing twisted horns wan­ders through our camp­site be­fore tents are pitched, but he seems to pre­fer hang­ing out near the kitchen tent, where scraps are plen­ti­ful.

We set­tle in, or­ga­niz­ing tents and hang­ing prayer flags, fetch­ing water from the river through a hole cut in the thick ice, while al­ways scan­ning the hori­zon with eyes, cam­era lenses, and tele­scopes. Short hikes are for both ac­clima­ti­za­tion and wildlife view­ing, and be­fore the light dis­ap­pears be­hind the Zan­skar range, we spy more bharal, lam­mergeier (bearded vul­ture), chukar par­tridge and woolly hare, as well as snow leop­ard tracks from the pre­vi­ous night.

When dinner is over and all have set­tled into their sleep­ing bags with two hot water bot­tles each, I walk qui­etly in the dark across the trail to gaze at the night sky in the clear air. Star­ing straight up at the bril­liance of stars, I hardly no­tice the whoosh of an an­i­mal run­ning past me. In the beam of my flash­light, I find it — not a snow leop­ard, but a red fox.

Like an­other light, a pas­sage from “The Snow Leop­ard” flicks on in my mem­ory: “If the snow leop­ard should man­i­fest it­self, then I am ready to see the snow leop­ard. … That the snow leop­ard is, that it is there, that its frosty eyes watch us from the moun­tain — that is enough.”

While the leop­ard has a rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing im­pos­si­ble to find, I’m not sure I can re­lease all ex­pec­ta­tion. Will it be enough just be­ing here in the home of the beast of­ten re­ferred to as the Gray Ghost?

Find­ing the big cat in the Ladakh re­gion of In­dia, is dif­fi­cult — es­pe­cially with only an es­ti­mated 200 to 300 in the area — at best, an av­er­age of one leop­ard per an area twice the size of Bryce Canyon Na­tional Park. No­body has an ex­act count of the ma­jes­tic shan, as it’s called in Ladakh, be­cause the an­i­mal is so elu­sive and in­hab­its a chal­leng­ing and re­mote habi­tat of desert, moun­tains, glaciers, high passes and plateaus.

His­tor­i­cally, they’ve been

poached for their fur, or killed by ranch­ers with sheep or cat­tle, which the leop­ards can prey on. As with most en­dan­gered species, hu­man en­croach­ment and cli­mate neg­a­tively affect the habi­tat, al­though in re­cent years, lo­cals in some re­gions have seen the value of of leop­ard-re­lated tourism and are work­ing to pre­serve them.

Here, among some of the harsh­est con­di­tions on the planet, in a for­mer Bud­dhist king­dom with pic­turesque gom­pas, white­washed stu­pas and mani walls set among an al­most su­per­nat­u­ral land­scape, seems the ap­pro­pri­ate place to search for a crea­ture whose mys­tique seems to be ri­valed only by yeti and uni­corns.

It’s not just num­bers that make snow leop­ards a chal­lenge to spot.

In the rugged moun­tains, with rust- and am­ber-col­ored rocky out­crops and fields of bright snow, the snow leop­ard’s thick, frosty gray fur pat­terned with darker gray open rosettes is a chameleon-grade cam­ou­flage.

Gaz­ing into Sonam’s tele­scope for a few mo­ments, I see noth­ing but rock and cliff face. No move­ment, no mag­nif­i­cent leop­ard. If it’s there, it’s in­vis­i­ble. And then, I see it, stalk­ing across a ridge — pale gold eyes fixed on some­thing I can­not see. Its fur has a hint of topaz and the thick tail that mea­sures as long as the an­i­mal’s body sways in the air, like the twitch­ing tail of a house cat. Broad paws tread slowly on the edges of the cliff, and the leop­ard, like moon­light on snow, flows low to the ground in a crouch.

Sud­denly, it leaps down the cliff face, twice div­ing into the dirt to cloak its scent, be­fore charg­ing in the di­rec­tion of a small herd of bharal. They scat­ter, jump­ing in all di­rec­tions across crum­bling rock and patches of snow, like a hand­ful of dust in the air — poof. Thwarted, the leop­ard stops and looks down the moun­tain in the di­rec­tion of the small col­lec­tion of track­ers and pho­tog­ra­phers that have been silently and ex­cit­edly gath­er­ing since Sonam’s call.

We con­tinue to watch the snow-cloud-col­ored cat for five hours, while it naps on a sun­beam-warmed rock, stalks more bharal (but doesn’t catch one) and sniffs the air. I hardly no­tice that I’m still clutch­ing my now-empty cup in my hands, never tied my boot laces, and haven’t yet eaten.

Get­ting my first, and per­haps only, glimpse of a snow leop­ard in the wild is enough.

Days later, af­ter a se­cond sight­ing, we move to an­other area known for its leop­ards. The small vil­lage of Ul­ley lies north of the In­dus River, in the Ul­ley Chhu Val­ley, at about 13,000 feet. The vil­lage has maybe seven houses, one of which is the Snow Leop­ard Lodge, where we drop our bags quickly be­fore fol­low­ing the track­ers to a small rise so we can scan nearby moun­tain ridges for wildlife.

In­stead of the bharal from Hus­ing, this re­gion is pop­u­lated by goat-like ibex and urial, horned sheep with long legs. We im­me­di­ately spy ex­am­ples of each, but there’s not yet a snow leop­ard. Other small groups that have come to Ul­ley for wildlife ex­pe­di­tions make note of where and when our track­ers are, and the re­sult­ing scrum looks like a Hol­ly­wood­style pha­lanx of pa­parazzi.

Re­searchers es­ti­mate that there are about 3,500 to 7,000 snow leop­ards left in the wild, and though that num­ber may ini­tially seem large, the an­i­mals are scat­tered in re­mote re­gions across Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, In­dia, Kaza­khstan, Kyr­gyz Repub­lic, Mon­go­lia, Nepal, Pak­istan, Rus­sia, Ta­jik­istan and Uzbek­istan. The cats have al­ready dis­ap­peared from some ar­eas where they for­merly lived, such as parts of Mon­go­lia. That we have seen two thus far seems like a mir­a­cle.

The fact that snow leop­ards are rare doesn’t en­tirely ex­plain why pho­tog­ra­phers and wildlife buffs are so com­pelled to trek into thin air to find them. Likely it is the rar­ity com­bined with the cat’s re­mote habi­tat and pref­er­ence to avoid hu­mans, as well as the pop­u­lar­ity of Matthiessen’s book and its fo­cus on the glory of a good quest.

I stand in the cold with the small group of snow leop­ard en­thu­si­asts, the light snow­fall caus­ing con­cerns about lim­ited vis­i­bil­ity. On one side of the val­ley, a pack of Ti­betan wolves plays hide-and-seek with our tele­scopes — com­ing out into the open when they see our at­ten­tion is di­vided, and hid­ing be­hind a ridge when we fo­cus on them.

On the other side, prov­ing that pa­tience some­times wins out, a lone snow leop­ard stalks a group of urial.

Out­doors in the grandeur of the Hi­malayas, hu­mans stop for a mo­ment, whis­per and trade places at tele­scopes, share chai, and won­der at the magic of a ghost.

Jill K. Robin­son / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

The Thiskey Monastery is the largest monastery in the Cen­tral Ladakh dis­trict.

Jill K. Robin­son / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Quiet en­thu­si­asts wait pa­tiently for a glimpse of the elu­sive snow leop­ard.

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